Power is defined as the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events. For far too long, power has been in the hands of perpetrators of abuse. Perpetrators who not only prey on the vulnerable, but use their power to exploit even the strongest among us. They instill fear in an attempt to keep victims silent. And it's been working. For a long, long time.
Every 98 seconds someone in the United States is sexually assaulted and 99% of the perpetrators of sexual violence walk free.
In the words of Haile Selassie, “[t]hroughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that made it possible for evil to triumph.” It's time to raise our voices, say “no more” and end this culture of sexual violence.
No longer will perpetrators and complicit bystanders hold the power to silence and hide the devastation they have caused. The power dynamic is shifting at this very moment. Feelings of fear and isolation are morphing into strength and hope. Victims are taking back the power and ending their silence. Many are doing so by filing lawsuits against the perpetrator and others who had the ability and obligation to intervene, but instead, turned a blind eye.
Some may be intrigued by the idea of bringing a lawsuit to effectuate this cultural change, but feel discouraged by challenges they foresee to taking legal action. Through our representation of victims, we have learned that there are common misconceptions that initially keep people from pursuing a lawsuit. Here are the most prevalent concerns:
• Many believe that they have to have absolute proof and mountains of evidence of the sexual violence – In a civil lawsuit, your testimony is evidence, and unlike in criminal cases, the burden of proof only requires that more than 50% of the evidence points in favor of proving your claims.
• People worry that their time to bring a lawsuit has passed – Many states, like Massachusetts, have lengthy timeframes in which to bring a sexual assault case, particularly when the abuse occurs when one is a minor. A lawyer can assist with this legal analysis and others addressed here.
• Some are concerned about retaliation through the perpetrator suing them – any claim by a perpetrator to take action is an intimidation tactic. In order for a person to bring a defamation suit, the claims made by the victim have to be false. In addition, the law also allows victims to bring retaliation claims if the perpetrator, for example, fires the victim when she or he speaks out.
• People also worry about their name being in the public view – several states allow sexual assault lawsuits to be brought in pseudonym, for example, as Jane Doe, as opposed to under the victim's name. There are also other avenues to protecting confidential information in the litigation with protective orders.
Lawsuits can serve an important role in ending the culture of sexual assault. It provides the means to send the message that sexual violence is unacceptable, and that wrongdoers will be held accountable. This message should ring loud and clear in courthouses across the nation – victims of sexual assault deserve vindication and justice. After all, “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice…the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals,” we are committed to this pursuit of justice so eloquently described by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Kim Dougherty, a lawyer with a Masters in Social Work, is the Managing Partner of the Boston Office of Andrus Wagstaff, PC. Kim has many years of experience as a women's rights advocate and is committed to representing victims of sexual violence. She has litigated and resolved cases on behalf of women who have been harmed and lectures regularly across the country on women's rights and gender equity. As a past President of the Women's Bar Association of Massachusetts, Kim testified on many bills affecting women's rights, including bills to end discrimination and promote pay equity, bills to protect pregnant workers and women at risk of genital mutilation, among others. She has also volunteered to represent women pro bono in domestic violence cases. Kim and all of her colleagues at Andrus Wagstaff, PC strongly believe that the power now rests in you. They are actively representing people hurt by sexual violence and intend to right the wrongs committed for decades.